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Quest for fire

One man and his cabbie set out to find Rochester's spiciest cocktails

Capsaicin is the fiery ingredient in peppers speculated by some in the scientific community to be an evolutionary adaptation to discourage hungry mammals. You see, mammals have molars that would destroy the sensitive pepper seeds, but birds, who lack these grinding teeth, also lack the neural channel—TRPV1 for you sticklers—to which capsaicin binds to create its lingual inferno. No neural channel means no burn. Thus Nature, in her wisdom, put fire in peppers to keep us hairy beasts at bay.

It makes you wonder how it is that I, a run-of-the-mill hairy beast, happen to be hunting around Rochester for the hot stuff—yet here I am. There’s buttermilk ready and a faithful cabbie leading the way to the hottest, spiciest cocktails Rochester has to offer.

Why? Because I am a glutton for punishment—and chances are you are, too. Yes, spicy cocktails are a thing now, and they’re popping up just about everywhere.

My first stop is at an out-of-the-way spot just skirting the edge of Wayne County in Perinton: Chakara Bistro. Chakara serves up Asian fusion cuisine by part owner and master chef San Lee. Brother and business partner Brandon Lee serves me what’s becoming known as their bar specialty, the Wasabi Bloody Mary. A twist on the classic hangover cure, their Mary is every bit as fortifying as the old standby, but the ingredients are far trendier.

Made with basil-infused vodka from Square One, Chakara also adds fresh lime and lemon juices as well as nose-clearing, eye-watering wasabi. On top, a cloud of papaya slaw cools you down for a more balanced, lighter version of the classic. If it’s not spicy enough for you, the bartender will helpfully dial up the heat.

As I leave, I make a mental note to remember this place for tomorrow when my journey is done. Something about awesome Asian fusion appetizers and a never-ending supply of those bloody marys at 11 a.m. appeals to me. In the meanwhile, I have miles to go and oceans of liquor to drink before I sleep—or something like that. While Chakara’s bloody mary is delightful, I’ve yet to have gotten the third degree burn I had in mind when my cabbie picked me up. And so, onward.

Nicole at Bistro 135 in East Rochester knows exactly why I’ve come when I explain my mission. The lovely and charming veteran barkeep wastes no time listing off two drinks—one on the menu, one that’s off for the season. She assures me that both will pique my nerve receptors in the way I desire.

First up is the Spiced Kiwi Jalapeño Cocktail, which wastes no time getting to the heat, featuring muddled jalapeño peppers right in the glass. Coconut rum, kiwi puree, and lemon round out this brand of firewater.
Heat is a truly ingenious way to tame the cloyingly sweet kiwi fruit, but jalapeños have their own native sweetness. If you’re feeling adventurous, try removing the seeds and white membranes from a piece of fresh jalapeño before eating it to see what I mean.

The second cocktail at Bistro135 sends me into TRPV1 bliss. It’s called the Spicy Grapefruit—and this is an easy quaffer for the heat-inclined. It’s a mix of grapefruit juice, lemon vodka, Saint Germain elderflower liqueur, and that staple of all things that need a swift kick in the ass: tabasco sauce. Okay, maybe it’s not as elegant or as organic as muddled jalapeño.

Grapefruit is not a flavor I enjoy in any other form—yet I love it here. And the Saint Germain adds a level of interest with its intoxicating floral notes. The smoky flavor of tabasco, too, often overwhelmed by its vinegar taste in most contexts, really shines through. It’s like eating a grilled grapefruit, and I want a second one. Because I’m really getting a good burn on, I don’t even mind sweating a bit in such a classy establishment.

But the cab is waiting to take me to the Village Gate. Onward!

At Good Luck, I find a tame car of the spice train to rest my palate on for a while. Their spicy offering is less intense and more of a back-of-the-palate tingling, despite including that trendy Asian condiment, sriracha.

Barkeep Sam serves me up a Ledgerdemain, and I deftly avoid the Cheers reference, despite being three drinks into my adventure. The Legerdemain is a play on the margarita—with blanco tequila, agave syrup, pear nectar, the venerable Pimm’s, and the aforementioned sriracha. Orange dust covers the rim of the glass. The result is a frothy orange cocktail in a pretty little champagne glass that is just packed with flavor. It’s a truly delicious cocktail but not quite the Heat Miser I’m in search of.

Next door at Lento I find the burn I’ve been seeking all night. Boozecrafter Tim is only too happy to introduce me to a couple featured drinks he says routinely catch customers off guard with their fiery intensity.
The first is another turn at a classic, the Prohibidos. Mexico has given America so much in our shared history, most of it damned spicy. The Prohibidos mixes our shared loves of spice and intoxication, using lager, tequila, lime, and tabasco. Served with ample ice in a large white wine glass, this is an authoritatively hot and spicy drink. Don’t bother if you’re not looking to get a sweat on. The taste is actually a lot less beer-driven than you might expect, and a lot sweeter. I can absolutely see myself sitting outside, getting significantly more wrecked than I planned with these. It’s another easy drinker.

The second cocktail at Lento is nothing short of pure genius. The Something Wicked is something special because it features a spice that I would never, ever, ever have thought to put in a cocktail with tequila and pineapple: cumin. Not just cumin, but whole cumin seeds, muddled with the poblano pepper—yes, I said, poblano pepper—as well as pineapple, reposado tequila, orange liqueur, lime, and honey.
The result is not at all savory. It is pure sweet, but the cumin adds a bit of woody, earthy edge to the aperitif, acting like a bouncer to the pineapple’s sour, sweet shenanigans.

Tone it down, fellas! We’re all here to have a good time.

Poblanos are, again, a fruity pepper with a lot of zing that isn’t all heat. And because reposado is barrel aged, it has a mellower, smoother, and smokier taste than the blancos you find in most mixed drinks. The result is a drink that is as moody and cerebral as it is light, fruity, and easygoing.

I leave Lento with my brow sweaty, my lips burning, the back of my neck cold with perspiration, and I’m very, very glad I have a cab for the ride home.

There are many more sweltering booze stories to be told in our spicy city. Mine is merely one. Go out there and find your own.

Thomas Belknap is a writer, musician, and developer who lives and works in the Rochester area. His blog, DragonFlyEye.Net, explores science and technology news in upstate New York.

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